Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Crusaders 14 at Western Force 16 (Super 15 Rugby) - April 13, 2013

Super Rugby began in 1996 with 12 teams based in South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. In 2006 it added 2 teams and became known as the Super 14. During that year, I was involved in a Super 14 tipping competition (known as a sports pool in North America) with colleagues from countries that actually played a lot of rugby. There were about 25 participants, and I was the ignorant Canuck, while the Poms, Kiwis, and Aussies all were confident of their chances.

We had to pick winners on a weekly basis, with points awarded for the correct result and closeness of the score. Having limited knowledge of the teams forced me to rely on public odds, which turned out to be a smart approach, as the other punters eschewed such help, preferring to use their expertise. Naturally, their expertise was only self-regarded and I found myself winning the competition and $500 as well. The money was quickly spent at a post-season celebration where I was repeatedly told of my beginner’s luck, but the satisfaction of having bested my colleagues still remains. From that time, I have followed Super Rugby, but had yet to attend a game, due to the season being relatively short and Japan being quite far from the countries in which the matches are played.

Now that I live in Singapore, I am just five hours from Perth, which is home to the Western Force, the first of those expansion teams. I arrived too late last year to visit, but this season there was no excuse. With the Australian Football League (AFL) and other sports in the area, a trip to Perth was a must and I finally got to go last weekend.

nib Stadium

The Force began play in 2006 at the venerable Subiaco Oval, which is usually an AFL ground and which I had visited the previous evening. The larger oval field at Subiaco was not suitable for rugby and the team moved into the Perth Oval, which is actually a rectangular field despite its name.

Having first opened in 1904 (the Book Stand was added in 1956 as you can see above), the stadium was in dire need of improvements and an extensive renovation program was started in 2012. The open-air seating has been replaced by new covered stands on the east and south sides, while the field itself was revamped. The north end, which is known as the Shed (below) and is mostly a standing area, was left untouched, maintaining a historical feel and a nice contrast to the newer sections.

I visited nib Stadium (named after health insurance provider nib and pronounced n.i.b.) during the final stages of these renovations. Construction is scheduled to finish at the end of June so it was a bit messy at parts, but overall I was quite impressed. I was again lucky to receive a free ticket as part of a Stadium Journey review and was given a tour of the facility by Sam Burling, one of the stadium’s marketing staff.

The stadium is located in the City of Vincent, about a 15-minute walk from Perth’s CBD. If you are coming from farther afield, Claisebrook is the closest rail station, about five minutes away from Gate 4. If you have your ticket with you, the train is free before and after the game. If you wish to drive, there seemed to be plenty of street parking in the area.

Gate 3 is the main entry point and you will emerge onto a large opening where a few food and drink options can be found. Food is fairly typical but reasonably priced. The Kiwi Kar had some meals for $12 but I would recommend the Bratwursts behind the south stand where there were 3 varieties at $8.50 each.

The most expensive tickets are $75, which is a bit dear for this sort of event. The cheapest seats are not even seats at all, but the standing area in the Shed. There are also tickets for $65 and $55, so not that many options – for me the extra dollars for the best seats are worth it here. There are only seven home games per season, so it is obviously necessary for the team to get as much revenue as possible, but for the length of the game (less than 2 hours), it can be a bit much to those of us used to similar prices for much longer matches.

The most noticeable feature here is the colour of the seats in the newly-added sections. They start with dark green seats at the bottom of the section and gradually lighten as you make your way to the top. This is to symbolize the journey from the bright green field to the blue sky and is quite an arresting sight when the stadium is empty. When the fans begin to fill those seats, their light blue jerseys add to the overall experience.

In fact, I was highly impressed with the crowd who showed up in numbers, most wearing the blue jersey of the Force. Several visiting fans came with face paint and other paraphernalia but all were welcomed. Unfortunately, there were a few bad apples who marred the experience for all. First, there was a streaker at halftime, which is somewhat acceptable as it doesn’t really impact the game. The rather portly gentleman was cheered on by the fans as he made his way from one end zone to the other unmolested. Security finally got hold of him and took him away and all was forgotten when the game resumed. Unfortunately, his antics inspired some other idiots who decided that their 15 minutes of fame had to come with five minutes left in a tense game. Security was caught napping again as four others (partly clothed at least) ran from the north end onto the pitch. One visiting player knocked down one of the intruders and eventually order was restored, but it definitely changed the flow of the game, which turned out to be one of the better sporting events I have seen.

The Game

Rugby is a fast sport with each half taking just over 40 minutes. It is not a game that lends itself to constant loud noise or distractions because the action on the field can be quite fascinating. I had been given a seat right near midfield and was amazed by the speed and strength of these guys. Many of the tackles left the recipient audibly gasping, and the brute physicality of the game was apparent from the first whistle.

The visitors were the Crusaders from Christchurch, the most successful team in the history of the competition with seven titles, although their 3-3 start was not promising this season. The Force had never finished higher than 7th and were off to a terrible 1-6 start so expectations were for a blowout.

Surprisingly though, the Force scored first when Sam Norton-Knight broke four tackles and stretched his arm just under the posts to ground the ball just four minutes in. The perfect location for the try allowed Jayden Hayward an easy conversion and it was 7-0 for the home team.

The teams traded penalties (in rugby, a penalty is a kick that is given after a team commits an offense – successfully booting the ball through the posts is worth 3 points) over the next quarter-hour before Luke Romano capped off a long Crusaders possession with a try at the left corner.

Conversions are kicked from a point parallel from where the ball is grounded so scoring in the corner makes the kick very difficult and Tyler Bleyendaal couldn't find the right angle. The ball sailed wide, allowing the Force to maintain the lead, 10-8.

It appeared as if Romano crossed the line in the 36th minute but it was disallowed after a video review showed that a forward pass had been committed earlier in the play. Yes, other leagues make intelligent use of video replay to ensure that bad officials don’t ruin the game. Yet MLB and the NBA still allow 55-year-old men to decide the outcome of events being played by athletes less than half their age. But I digress.

The Force added two more penalties to end the half up 16-8, but the Crusaders got those back early in the second stanza to again move within two points. After that, it was defense that ruled the pitch.

For the last 25 minutes, it was the Crusaders who played like their name, wave upon wave hammering the bulwarks of the Force defense. Romano crashed home for another apparent try but the video review showed that he did not ground the ball properly. Still undaunted, the Crusaders continued to push but a number of drops and other handling errors doomed their chances. As the siren sounded, they were moving within penalty range and the fans were clearly concerned, but a hard hit knocked the ball loose and the Force recovered, kicking it out of bounds to end the game and preserve the hard-fought victory.

It was really a great defensive battle and the best rugby match I have ever seen. I hope to do a Super 15 tour sometime, but that requires a lot of time and money, things that are in short supply right now.

Finally, a big thanks to Sam Burling and all the nib Stadium crew for their assistance in showing me their wonderful venue.



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